Redemption feels good.
It even feels good when it’s a minuscule bit of personal redemption that no one else cares about, like finally running a decent half marathon again. The two California-based halfs I ran in 2016 were scenic and beautiful, but my running was slow and ugly. I channeled my disappointment into a lot of winter mileage and a longer, more ambitious training schedule. Along with this extra work came extra pressure: if all of this running couldn’t get my time under two hours then perhaps I needed to rethink the appeal of running 13.1 miles. It’s not that I have to be awesome every time out, but three bad races in a row might indicate a trend towards being, as Sergeant Roger Murtaugh might say, “too old for this shit.”
The Whidbey Island Half in Oak Harbor, WA was the event I chose for getting my mojo back. Its proximity to home allowed me to focus entirely on the event rather than it being a destination race, as so many of my other half marathons had been. I also thought (mistakenly) it was going to be a relatively flat course. It wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the hilliest, most challenging course I ever ran and a clear indicator that I‘m either very bad at interpreting elevation charts or I was drinking when I signed up.
Despite the hills and the chilly weather I ran an excellent race. I broke the two hour barrier – though you probably figured that out based on the lack of cursing thus far in the post – and even managed to do it in dramatic fashion. My game plan had been to simply stay ahead of the two-hour pacer. So when the young kid with the stick passed me in the final couple of miles, I started to mentally unwind. I was dragging pretty badly at this point and the pacer was pulling away. My legs were toast and my left calf was on the verge of cramping. But I pushed myself. The pacer was in my sites as we reached the final stretch so I ran as hard as I could. As we approached the final turn I could hear my wife yelling her support and in the final fifty yards I was able to pass him.
As it turns out the pacer was a couple of minutes ahead of pace anyway, but passing him still felt good, almost as good as being able to stop. In addition to my very small, very personal triumph, the Whidbey Island Half provided me with some profoundly mediocre race-related observations.
This is probably one of the laziest, most obvious opinions a runner has ever expressed, but it bears repeating. Hills suck. I honestly lost track of the amount of uphill running I did, but I’ll never forget the monsters near the mid-section of this out-and-back course. In hindsight, it’s amazing I was able to post as good of a time as I did. Someday I’m going to treat myself to a half marathon in Iowa or Nebraska just so I can feel the joy of running 13.1 flat, hill-free miles.
Driving the Course is Good
One reason I was able to survive the Widow Maker (my new nickname for the biggest hill on the course) was because I knew it was coming. The evening before the race, my wife and I drove the course to see what the elevation gain looked like up close. (Did I mention how bad I am at reading elevation charts?) Knowing what I was up against no matter how daunting was better than not knowing. Had I encountered these giant hills for the first time as I ran, I wouldn’t have been as psychologically prepared as I needed to be and there’s a good chance I might’ve sharted myself.
Race Walkers Drive Me Crazy
There’s nothing wrong with walking or run-walking a race… as long you move it on over and leave plenty of room for the runners. It’s a simple concept yet there seem to be plenty of people who don’t get it. The Whidbey Island Half was an out-and-back that shared its opening and closing miles with a 10K and 5K that started 30 minutes later. As half marathoners reached the final three miles, we had to pass bunches of race walkers who spread themselves across the road two and three wide. Not cool. Clearly we need an international commission to outline a specific, agreed upon etiquette for race walkers to follow and harsh punishments for those who refuse to comply.
Last Two Miles = Journey into my Soul
The last two miles of a half marathon are always the most brutal for me. It’s when I hit my physical and psychological nadir. By the time I reach the 11-mile marker, my body has hit the wall and my mind is slowly melting down. At this point on Sunday, my sub-2-hour goal was fading like a Trump campaign promise and the idea of ever running another half seemed as ludicrous as a Trump campaign promise. If my hard work and training couldn’t get it done this time around, then really what the hell was the point? Of course, I survived those final miles and reached my goal. But I’m convinced that if I ever have a complete mental collapse, it’ll take place during the last two miles of a half marathon.
A few days have passed since my triumphant return to a reasonably decent half marathon pace. My legs have recovered and I’m enjoying the booze and junk food I reward myself with in the week after a big race. But this weekend the resting comes to an end. My family is signed up for a 5K this Sunday and I have a 10K and a 5-mile race in May.
I’m even considering running the Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle in June. It would the first time I ran half marathons within a couple months of each other. It’s a big decision, and one I’ll make after I drive the course and investigate the size of its hills.